14 May 2006

The writer and the public

It might surprise some that doyens of culture who are thought to have lived on the scent of apples in some rarefied, ethereal realm often shared the grossest popular tastes. Wittgenstein, no mean influence on thinkers and a patron of the arts himself, liked nothing more than to watch shoot-'em-up westerns in the evening, and Canada’s Eden Robinson, author of Traplines, loves Stephen King. Henry James, a mandarin of letters if ever there was one, collected sensational drippings from newspapers about murders and other misdemeanours that our highfalutin’ auteurs would shun today.

Literature for them is the preserve of a coterie of theorists and practitioners whose very isolation which they despair of with romantic sighs confirms their status as elite and misunderstood geniuses well above the concerns and capacity of the masses whom they despise. This is truer of writers already in the mill-race, twittering in twee semi-English voices, grasping for a toehold in a publishing house or with some kinds of ties to the academy. Literateurs these days don’t seem to write for readers.

Regardless of their origins and location, they style themselves outside history, process and location as authors whom the common run of humanity fails to appreciate and who disdain the cut and thrust of the marketing people in the publishing world. The ones who do succeed in becoming popular are in a quandary to explain it. Their talent alone is their justification. Not for them the marketing or the tastes of the reading public. Good god, no, they're above all that. It's not a profession, we're told, but a labour of love against all odds and obstacles – ah, the poverty and the sacrifice — and their success is due solely to their single-minded pursuit of the higher arts where their merit has shone through. Never mind all the professional workshops they've attended, the networks they've worked hard to build, the professors, editors and writers they have ladled butter on, the words-of-mouth or the inbred referrals they've benefited from. All that doesn’t matter. It’s just a question of merit and dedication.

Why this disconnect between literature and its public? We know that in Iran the popularity of Hafiz's poems cuts across classes, so a butcher can recite his ghazals. How many ordinary Canadians can quote Canadian writers? Here probably pizza-delivery boys and taxi drivers with overseas PhDs or medical degrees can quote Dante, Rumi, Faiz or Broch. Academic theory and practice which has become as protectionist of its disciplines just as much as medicine or law with their self-reproducing, arcane terminologies, cant, trends and incestuous circles have as much to answer for as these writers.

Enough bile for a blog.

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